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China’s interest in trans-Pacific trade deal met with scepticism by those who helped negotiate it

08/07/2020    5

A series of high profile officials in Beijing have recently voiced openness about China joining a trans-Pacific trade pact abandoned by the United States in one of the first acts of Donald Trump’s presidency.

But officials who helped negotiate the deal formerly known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), now the slimmed down Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), are not taking Beijing’s advances seriously.

Officials differ in their rationale, with some saying that China’s increasingly state-led economy would not satisfy membership criteria on state-owned enterprises, labour rights or corporate data localisation, while others point to China’s increasingly bitter geopolitical rows with Australia and Canada, both cornerstones of the 11-nation pact.

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But those who negotiated the agreement are united in their cynicism towards China’s expressions of interest.

Beijing has not yet registered formal or even informal interest with the current 11 members of the CPTPP, according to senior sources in New Zealand and Mexico, the agreement’s depository member – the party with whom membership interest would have been registered – and convening member for 2020 – the annual host which would have to convene members to discuss new interest – respectively, who would be notified of any efforts by Beijing to sound out members.

“We have not heard directly from China”, said one senior Mexican official, who did not wish to be identified.

The highest profile statement out of Beijing so far came from Premier Li Keqiang, who in a press conference rounding off the National People’s Congress in late May said “China has a positive and open attitude toward joining the CPTPP”.

“To read it in the media was interesting. But there has been no approach through [existing] membership, we would hear from the members,” said a senior official in Wellington, also noting comments towards the end of June from former commerce minister Chen Deming, who said that China is “interested in joining” but that “we want to know more about the attitude of Japan”.

They would want to be really sure [of being welcomed], you do not want to be embarrassed by one country holding it up, whether that is Japan or anyone else

New Zealand official

“So far we have heard from Thailand, South Korea, and Britain, but nothing from China. They would want to be really sure [of being welcomed], you do not want to be embarrassed by one country holding it up, whether that is Japan or anyone else,” said the New Zealand official, who also asked not to be named due to the potential sensitivity of China-facing geopolitics.

Instead, there is a feeling among current members and former US officials, who would like to see Washington resume interest in the deal that the Obama administration staked out to contain China’s rise in Asia-Pacific, that Beijing is engaging in a “bit of mischief” in expressing interest in a deal Trump dumped in the early days of his presidency in 2017.

“How can either of them let any opportunity pass?” asked a CPTPP minister, referring to what they viewed as an effort by the Chinese government to bait rivals in Washington.

One negotiator described China’s statements of intent as a “cost-free dangle” and a way of “sticking it to the US by being the ones out there talking up CPTPP, but they’re not sitting down with countries, talking about changing seriously key aspects of their behaviour”.

But not everyone is complaining as China would be by far the biggest member economy should serious interest materialise, with many Pacific Rim nations keen to grow their commercial ties with Beijing, even as the politics become more fraught.

Noises from China, however, also have the added benefit of tweaking Washington’s attention to a deal that some hope it will return to under a different administration.

“We do think it’s a bit of mischief, but it is not a bad thing for us, any time a noise comes out that China is open to joining, Washington sits up and takes notice. Every time China says that, it sends a frisson through Washington, which is great,” said a negotiator from a Pacific nation.

It is not the first time China has expressed interest, with a former top US trade official saying that “high level” engagement took place in 2013, even if it never went very far.

Source: Yahoo! News